Setting My Past On fire 4:
It’s been a year since I sold and/or gave away everything we had owned and left the Philly suburbs, bound for anywhere but there. I had decided I needed to get away from the ghosts that haunted me, the constant reminders of that awful day that triggered ongoing panic attacks and overwhelming grief and depression. I needed to start life over. But to do so, I first needed to set my past on fire. For more than two weeks I drove across this country with only the faintest idea where I was headed, routing and rerouting by the hour, making accommodations from the road, sometimes just minutes before I would arrive somewhere. My first stop, just six hours away was Shaker Heights, Ohio, which I wrote about last September
Day two. Shaker Heights, Ohio.
I sat up in bed and looked intently at my phone, waiting a split second for it to recognize my face and unlock, a security protocol I’ve learned to both dread and yet appreciate, a ceaseless reminder of just how vulnerable we all are at the hands of some desperate to destroy our lives. Despite my disheveled bedhead and my eyes straining to bare the bright morning sunlight, somehow the phone recognized me. 7:04. I was already running late. After a quick shower I grabbed my bags and began the arduous daily process of repacking the car with everything I owned, with little tolerance for error. Every item in its place, or the trunk and passenger door literally wouldn’t close. Strategically placed on the passenger seat next to me, sat two small engraved wooden boxes.
“Coffee, oh sweet Jesus,” I moaned, pulling up Google Maps. “Where are you Starbucks?” My first goal of the day, a grandé black eye, a dark roast coffee with two shots of espresso, was just blocks away. As I drove out of the neighborhood and turned east onto the four lane main drag, the bright morning sun directly in my eyes, I spotted a glimpse of it just ahead. Like a moth drawn to the electric blue glow of a bug zapper, I darted toward the iconic green mermaid, pausing only briefly before I jerked the wheel left. Just as I did, the sound of bellowing horns and screeching tires jolted me out of my morning fog. Instinctively, my body stiffened and I grabbed the wheel in a death grip, crossing the two lanes of traffic barreling right toward me. “SHIIIIIT!!!” I screamed, barely making it into the parking lot before slamming on the brakes. My heart pounding loudly in my chest, I looked back toward the street just in time to see the bird an indignant woman was flipping me from the passenger seat of a pearl-white BMW. “I deserved that,” I admitted, waving apologetically and mumbling a prayer while taking a cleansing breath of relief. I was wide awake now.
“Running late,” I texted my two eldest sisters, who I was meeting for lunch, five hours away in Fort Wayne. “will send ETA from the road.”
Minutes later, from the I-90 Ohio Turnpike that runs along the busy shipping yards of Lake Erie, I took a cautious sip of my black eye, its intoxicating aroma filling the car, while white steam danced playfully through the hole in the lid, disappearing in the current of cool air from the air conditioner. Out the passenger window, an endless line of neatly stacked containers in an array of brightly painted colors and rust whirred by in a mesmerizing blur. I felt a self-deprecating smirk forming across my face, shaking my head in disbelief, the image of the near fatal scene just moments before played back in my mind. If Jennair had been in the passenger seat, I just knew I would be subjected to an endless list of reasons why I was a dangerous and terrible driver. Her snide put downs never failed to spark a shouting match that usually ended the only way I knew how, passive-aggressively driving ten miles below the speed limit with my hands firmly at ten and two, knowing full well she was doing a slow burn next to me. It was all part of our codependent dance and God knows I played my part. But she wasn’t seated beside me. She never again would be.
Fort Wayne, still hours ahead, just across the Indiana border. My mind began to wander, replaying another near fatal incident from the summer of ’91, barely a year into my budding courtship of Jennair. I was busy at work when suddenly the pager clipped to my belt started buzzing. I didn’t recognize the number, but I walked to the nearest phone and called it immediately. “Hello,” a meek female voice answered. “It’s Mark,” I said. “Who is this?”
I heard a deep sigh and then in a whimper, Jennair said through her tears, “I was in an accident. My car is totaled.”
“Where are you?” I asked.
“The hospital,” she said, barely holding back her tears. “I’m okay. They just released me and Mom is on her way. Just meet me at home.”
Not even bothering to say good-bye, I hung up and sped home to the apartment we shared and burst through the door. Jennair, still in her work attire, a jaunty pair of black shorts, a white button-down shirt and bright green elastic suspenders with a menagerie of swag and buttons with cheeky sayings from the Irish restaurant where she worked, sat at the dining room table. Her leg, wrapped with gauze at the knee, was propped up on a wooden chair next to her. She was holding a handful of polaroid photos, which she then splayed on the table like a hand of cards for me to see. I gasped in horror. Her bright red Pontiac 1000, reduced to a heap of mangled sheet metal, lay upside down on the street, its belly exposed like a lifeless bug. “How did anyone survive this?” I remembered thinking, reeling. “How is my girlfriend still alive?”
“I thought it was a four-way stop,” she explained. “So I went.” She stopped to blow her nose and wipe her tears. “Next thing I know I’m upside down, skidding on the roof. The pavement was grinding inches from my face through the window.”
“It’s okay. You’re okay now.” I said, gingerly hugging her, grateful she wasn’t seriously hurt or worse. “Thank God you’re alive,” I said, turning the polaroids over in disgust. I loved her already, and after just months, I didn’t want to imagine my life without her.
Twenty seven years later, still shaking my head in disbelief, I looked up, surprised to see the exit sign to Fort Wayne so soon. As a kid, growing up in a small town near the Ohio border, twenty minutes away, “The Fort,” as my generation called it, was the big city to us, bustling with activity and excitement. But at 20 and 22 respectively, as our relationship began to blossom, Jennair and I had set our sights higher, looking forward to the day we would get the hell out of this place. And when we finally did three years later, we vowed never to return. Not to stay anyway. The now almost desolate downtown streets were a hodgepodge patchwork of aging asphalt, black tar and haphazardly filled potholes, clear signs of years of deferred maintenance, all in the name of lower taxes. This was steak and “potatoe” Dan Quayle country, after all. Fort Wayne, home to relic brands like Magnavox and the birthplace of the Detroit Pistons, born from the once fledgling auto industry, before losing the franchise to its rustbelt neighbor to the north. The modern day “Summit City,” ironically named as the highest point above sea level along the entire canal route, stood a long way from its peak.
On instinct I turned south on Broadway, passing under the rusted steel foot bridge of the now defunct General Electric plant, a sprawling campus of deteriorating, turn-of-the-century red brick buildings and broken glass, where 40% of the city’s workforce was once employed. On the right, I passed the iconic Zesto Ice cream stand Jennair had so often reminisced about walking to every summer as a young girl. And then, just a few blocks away, there it was, Jennair’s childhood home, an unassuming two-story grey aluminum-sided house with white painted trim, now cracking and peeling in the merciless heat and humidity of the Indiana summer.
Parking down the street, under the shade of a towering oak tree, I shut off my car, taking in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. I couldn’t help but imagine Jennair at the tender age of 10, walking up the sidewalk from school in her neatly pleated plaid uniform, her blonde hair pulled back with bright plastic barrettes. Walking up the porch steps and opening the white storm door, she wondered warily what awaited her inside. A verbal assault of put downs and name calling fueled by an afternoon of binge drinking? Or maybe, she hoped, he would be asleep or not home at all.
“I can’t go back to Indiana,” I can still hear her say, the emotionally-charged discussion about our impending divorce still fresh in my mind, now more than a year later. “There’s nothing there for me. I can’t go back. I won’t.”
In that moment, I understood more than ever, why moving back home wasn’t an option. She’d rather die. But just weeks before our separation, she was running out of options. I wiped a rogue tear from my eye and drove out of the neighborhood, heading toward the newer, nicer part of town. Jennair’s parents had long since moved out of the old neighborhood, now calling an upscale condo on the west side of the city home. I drove by, never intending to stop. But less than a mile away, I could hear my heart pounding in my chest as I reluctantly turned into the driveway of the cemetery where they had laid their eldest daughter, and my wife of 24 years, to rest.
I reached for the wooden boxes in the passenger seat and plodded up the paved path, taking a seat in the grass over her grave. “I don’t know if you’re here,” I said, my voice quivering. “I doubt it. You didn’t really believe in all that.” I placed the wooden boxes on the grass and opened them. “I brought the girls,” I said, now sniffling. “They should be with you.”
“The girls” were our first golden retrievers we had raised together as if they were our children. While they were alive, they were never far from our side. And even after they had passed, we took them with us through every move, displaying the boxes and their photos on the mantle. We just couldn’t part with them. But now I knew in my heart what I needed to do. I opened each box and sifted the fine grey ashes onto the ground and rubbed them into the grass with my hands. My girls were together once again, or at least their physical being. But the thought of Jennair spending eternity in a place she wanted so badly to escape was more than I could bear. I just knew in that moment she had moved on. And it was time for me to do the same. I stood and began walking away. Then I stopped and turned.
“I’m not coming back,” I told her. “I can’t. I won’t.”
A year later, that day as clear as yesterday, I still can’t. I still won’t. I am still moving on.